It's not the despair, Laura. I can stand the despair. It's the hope.
During his years with Monty Python, and later in the hilarious sitcom Fawlty Towers, John Cleese excelled at playing very stuffy, self-important upper-class British types. It is a talent he attributes largely to his background as an old "public school" boy himself. In Clockwise, he takes on the very epitome of such a character, the headmaster of a British school.
Facts of the Case
Brian Stimpson (Cleese—Monty Python And The Holy Grail, A Fish Called Wanda, How to Irritate People) is the headmaster of what the Brits call a "maintained comprehensive school," what we on this side of the pond would call a public high school. This is in contrast to what the Brits would call a "public school," which is in fact what we would call a private school. You will need to know that he is obsessed with time, planning his days down to the last minute. You will also need to know that he has just been elected chairman of the Headmasters' Conference, the first headmaster of such a school to achieve that honor, and is on his way to make his first speech in that office. His wife drops him at the train station exactly on schedule, and through a miscommunication involving his habitual use of the word "right" he gets on the wrong train. He manages to get off the train, but not before missing the correct one, and not before leaving the text of his speech on the seat next to him. By the time he realizes this, that train has left as well. By the time he realizes this, his wife has left with the car. He finds his way home, but she is not there either; he is forced to find alternate transportation, getting later and later all the while. While desperately searching for transportation he encounters Laura (Sharon Maiden), one of the students from his school. He winds up imposing on her for a lift; the conference is only 150 miles away, after all. She has just had a fight and broken up with her boyfriend, who just happens to be a music teacher at the school; she agrees to go along on Stimpson's adventure. Her parents in turn think that she has stolen the car and run off with an older man. Stimpson's wife sees them at a gas station and thinks much the same thing. Soon the police, the music teacher, Laura's parents, the police, Mrs. Stimpson, and a group of three batty old ladies are all hot on their tail as they make a last-ditch, desperate chase across the English countryside. Along the way, as events spiral further and further out of control, they pick up one of Stimpson's old flames, get stuck in the middle of a field, practically destroy Laura's parents' car, and find themselves in a monastery. It's all in the course of Stimpson's fanatical service to the clock.
Clockwise is notable as it contains one of the few feature-length, leading roles by John Cleese. It truly is his movie; the supporting characters, while good, are really mere foils for Cleese's energetic performance. Cleese gets ample opportunity to do what he does best here. Stimpson is by turns pompous, arrogant, angry, and confused. In this character Cleese find the opportunity to use a good measure of Basil Fawlty or the Minister of Silly Walks or his recurring drill sergeant character from the Python days. He excels at playing stuffy Englishmen caught in absurd situations and railing against the gods, and that in a nutshell is what he gets to do in this film.
This obscure but enjoyable film comes to us on DVD from the good folks at Anchor Bay, who of course specialize in "obscure but enjoyable." The film is presented in an anamorphic transfer, in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Picture quality is as good as one could expect. The source print was apparently in very good condition as there are no nicks or other surface blemishes, and very few digital flaws apart from some occasional minor edge enhancement. Details are fairly sharp and colors appear to be faithfully reproduced. However, the entire film has a slightly soft, muted, almost gauzy look. It appears to me that this is probably the result of deliberate choices in filming, rather than any fault of the transfer process.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono. It is a nice, clean audio track, with only a minimal amount of occasional hiss audible under everything. Different sound effects come through with surprising clarity, and both the musical score and the dialogue are handled very nicely.
Also on this DVD is an appropriate selection of supplemental material. There is a theatrical trailer provided. There is also an extensive and very informative biography and filmography of Mr. Cleese, which is quite an interesting read. Finally, there is a 13-minute interview with Cleese entitled "Clockwatching with Mr. Cleese." In this segment, he recalls a lot of interesting information about the making of the movie, as well as insights into his life and career in general. Perhaps the most interesting part of the interview is his insight into the nature of comedy, that it stems from "emotional chaos recalled in tranquility." He also nails down the difference between British and American comedy: British comedy is often content to get laughs from absurd situations alone, while American comedy feels a stronger need for funny dialogue to drive the point home. He states that Americans are much more in love with the wisecrack than are the British. Perhaps it is a broad generalization, but this explanation makes a lot of sense to me. Viewers of this interview will appreciate Cleese's combination of intellect and dryly hilarious wit. As an added bonus, we learn once and for all that "Cleese" rhymes with "cheese," not "fleece." I'm sure you were all dying to have that question settled.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One flaw with Clockwise, it is that it captures Stimpson's anguish a little too perfectly. There are times where the movie is actually more painful than funny, and we cringe a bit at some of the things Stimpson causes his traveling companions to endure. Also, his obsession with time and punctuality does get old after a while, at times threatening to turn the character into a one-trick pony. Also, the constant near misses and coincidences that build up the chase aspect of the movie are amusing at first, but even these stretch belief a bit too far at times.
The other major flaw in the film is a matter of pacing. For a movie that is so concerned with the clock, it certainly takes its sweet time to get where it is going. There is an overlong second act where Stimpson takes time out at the monastery and then runs off wearing only a monk's robes, forcing him and Laura to hijack a Porsche and steal the owner's clothing and wallet. Finally, as all the concerned parties come together for the climax of the film, there is no real drama, apart from more histrionics from Cleese. It is as if writer Michael Frayn (Noises Off) suddenly realized at the end of the screenplay that he had introduced far too many characters and had no idea what to do with them all. The finale of the movie is rather unsatisfying and abrupt. It doesn't so much come to a conclusion, but rather just sort of ends.
Anchor Bay has done their usual excellent job on this DVD. Unfortunately, their usual excellent job continues to neglect English subtitles on their discs, which remains a major concern.
Clockwise is a funny film, often amusing in a painful sort of way. John Cleese fuels the movie with a performance that is the epitome of everything we have come to expect from him. Still, the screenplay is flawed, and the ending leaves a lot to be desired. Avid fans of Cleese the Python troupe, or British comedy in general will want to check this out. Others may want to be a bit more cautious, as this movie will not please everyone, and will probably please no one completely.
John Cleese and this movie are acquitted and are free to go; just in time for the next train, as it turns out. Anchor Bay is commended once again for a good job on a film most studios would have ignored. Now, about that subtitle issue…
We stand adjourned.
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